For many students, it’s a struggle to pay for college.
But students who may be here in the United States illegally face an extra challenge: They don’t qualify for federal financial aid or many scholarships.
That was the situation for Jonathan Zapeta.
He came to the United States from Guatemala when he was six years old. Then, later in his senior year of high school, he got into the University of Texas at Austin, but didn’t know how he was going to pay for it.
So he confided in his teacher Mary Frances Carter.
Mary Frances Carter (MFC): It was the last period of the day. It was my off-period of the day and you would always help me grade. So, after a very long pause, you said, ‘Can I talk to you about something?’
Jonathan Zapeta (JZ): I confided in you as a friend. And then as I told you that I was undocumented, I just felt a great burden lifted off my shoulders.
MFC: Why do you think it felt like a burden to you?
JZ: I truly felt as though it was the biggest secret of my life. I felt as though it was something that should remain hidden no matter what.
Knowing that you’d respond well to it and, you know, taking that leap of faith has truly helped me a lot and it gave me a lot of confidence that I used to, you know, tell my other friends and to tell other fellow teachers and to get involved with equal rights advocation.
MFC: The thing that stuck out to me the most was this just immediate fury that there was this monetary obstacle that was stemming entirely from the fact that undocumented students have such a hard time getting financial aid.
JZ: There were a lot of scholarships. But the one sentence that just disappointed me was “must be a U.S. resident to apply.”
MFC: Something I didn’t share at the time, but that was going through my mind when we were having that conversation is that I was remembering this conversation the year before with another one of my students, Rodrigo, and how he was saying, well, he wasn’t going to UT because he wasn’t a citizen.
And it will probably remain one of my biggest regrets that I never really followed up on helping Rodrigo go to UT.
I knew that I couldn’t have another regret and that there needs to be … there needed to be something different this year and so I hope that we are writing a different ending.
JZ: Well, I actually have some good news. I was offered around $10,000 in school grants, and that was after around two months of you know being in …
MFC: Stress …
JZ: Yes, a lot of stress stemming from the fact that I thought I wasn’t getting any financial aid whatsoever. Knowing that UT gave me money just made me feel so ecstatic about just going to college and knowing that the financial burden wouldn’t be as much.
MFC: That sense of victory, that sense of validation you felt when you got that email from UT – I want more of that, I want to recreate that, because to me that’s so … That’s something that every student who works towards a goal like UT should be able to achieve.
So next year Spring Woods High School will be rolling out a new program that is designed to support 20 to 40 undocumented students or students who don’t have status in their senior year.
JZ: So when you told me about your Dream Project,
MFC: You really don’t like the title, do you?
JZ: It’s kind of cheesy.
MFC: Well, I’m open to suggestions.
JZ: But yeah, it made me happy knowing that you were taking the initiative to help other future students and just knowing that they’ll have teachers like yourself to support them, and that they won’t necessarily have to go through what I went through –it just made me happy.